An advertisement appearing on the Internet on March 6, 2001, read as follows:

(p/t) Beautiful, smart, hostess, good masseuse—$400/week.

Hi there.

This is a strange job opening, and I feel silly posting it, but this is San Francisco, and I do have the need! This will be a very confidential search process.

I’m a mild-mannered millionaire businessman, intelligent, traveled, but shy, who is new to the area, and extremely inundated with invitations to parties, gath­erings and social events. I’m looking to find a “personal assistant,” of sorts. The job description would include, but not be limited to:

t. Being hostess to parties at my home ($4o/hour)

2. Providing me with a soothing and sensual massage ($i4o/hour

3. Coming to certain social events with me ($4o/hour)

4. Traveling with me ($300 per day + all travel expenses)

5. Managing some of my home affairs (utilities, bill-paying, etc.) ($3o/hour)

You must be between 22 and 32, in-shape, good-looking, articulate, sensual, attentive, bright and able to keep confidences. I don’t expect more than 3 to 4 events a month, and up to 10 hours a week on massage, chores and other mis­cellaneous items, at the most. You must be unmarried, unattached, or have a very understanding partner!

I’m a bright, intelligent 30-year-old man, and I’m happy to discuss the reasons for my placing this ad with you on response of your email application. If you can, please include a picture of yourself, or a description of your likes, interests, and your ability to do the job.

NO professional escorts please! NO Sex involved!

Thank You.

You can email me at… 1

In this ad, we are looking at a certain cultural edge beyond which the idea of paying for a service, to many people, becomes unnerving.- But what activities seem to us too personal to pay for or do for hire? What about a social context and culture persuade us to feel as we do about it?

To be sure, a transaction that seems perfectly acceptable to some people in one context often seems disturbing to others in another. Notions of agreeableness or credibility also change over time. Indeed, I wonder if

THE COMMODITY FRONTIER

American culture is not in the midst of such a change now. A half century ago, we might have imagined a wealthy man buying a fancy home, car, and pleasant vacation for himself and his family. Now, we are asked to imagine the man buying the pleasant family, or at least the services associated with the fantasy of a family-like experience.

In this essay I explore some reactions to this ad, selecting from the trea­sure trove of Neil Smelser’s extraordinary corpus of creative work, especially his work on the relationship between family and economy, and on the psy­chological function of myth. For together, these ideas help us develop another of his key insights—diat “economic man” is a very cultural and emotionally complex being.

I used this ad as a cultural Rorschach test. What, I asked upper-division students at the University of California, Berkeley, is your response to this ad? As I show, their response was largely negative—ranging from anxious refusal (“he can’t buy a wife”) to condemnation (“he shouldn’t buy a wife”) to considerations of the emotional and moral flaws that might have led him to write the ad. They were not surprised at the ad, only disturbed by it.

So how did die ad disturb the students and why? After all, family history is replete with examples of family arrangements that share some characteristics with the commercial relationship proposed in this ad. In answer, I propose that students, like many others in American society today, face a contradiction between two social forces.

On one hand, they face a commodity frontier. While the market is creating ever more niches in the “mommy industry,” the family is outsourcing more functions to be handled by it. Through this trend, the family is moving, top class first, from an artisanal family to a post-production family. And with this shift, personal tasks—especially those performed by women—are become monetized and to some degree impersonated.3

On the other hand, the family—and especially the wife-mother within it—has, as a result, become a more powerful, condensed symbol for trea­sured qualities such as empathy, recognition, love—qualities that are quin­tessential^ personal. The resulting strains between these two trends have led to a crisis of enchantment. Are we to hold onto the enchantment of the wife-mother in the familial sphere, or can purchases become enchanted too? Each “faith"—in family or marketplace—brings with it different impli­cations for emotion management. Each is also undergirded by the mistaken assumption that family and market are separate cultural spheres.

RESPONSES TO THE AD: CULTURAL SENSITIVITIES TO THE COMMODITY FRONTIER

I distributed copies of the ad posted by the shy millionaire to seventy students in my class on the sociolog)’ of the family at the University of

California, Berkeley, in the spring of 2001 and asked them to comment. I also followed up the survey with conversations with some half-dozen stu­dents about why they answered as they did. While many came from Asian immigrant families and believed in the importance of strong family ties, quite a few were also heading for workaholic careers in Silicon Valley where outsourcing activities that meet domestic needs is fast becoming a fashion­able, if controversial, way of life. So, while hardly typical of the views of edu­cated American youth in general, the views of these students hint at a con­tradiction between economic trends that press for the outsourcing of family functions and a cultural fetishization of insourced functions.

Most students expressed a combination of sympathy (“he’s afraid to go out and get a girlfriend” or “he’s pathologically shy”» and criticism or con­tempt {“he’s selfish,” “he’s a loser,” “he’s a creep,” “he’s too socially con­scious”). Others expressed fear (“this ad is scary”), anger (“what a jerk”), suspicion (“he’s a shady character”), and disbelief (“this is unreal”).

Perhaps the most eloquent response came from a young woman, a child of divorce who still believes in love. As she put it:

It is a very sad commentary on the state of relationships today. Even family life is being directly sought in commodity trade. Forget the messy emotions. Just give me the underlying services and benefits money can buy. And what’s the point of trying, when all it brings are pain, strife and divorce? I hen the act ol

sexual interaction is relativized and commodified, but as prostitution. Clearly the intrinsic value [of the sensual massage] to the buyer is much higher [$140 an hour] so we’re not talking a shoulder mb. But even the beau­tiful intertwining of loving, caring, spiritually connected partners in love-mak­ing is reduced to mechanized, emotionless labor for hire. Is it any wonder there’s so much smoldering rage in such a graceless age?

Another commented: “This takes the depersonalization of relationships to new heights.” At the same time, most of the respondents said the ad was thinkable. It was plausible. It wasn’t surprising. As one student put it, refer­ring to tlie San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley, it could happen, “at least around here.” Referring to another website he had seen, one young man said, “Given the website www.2kf0rawife. com [a website advertising for a wife, no longer up as of July 2001], I’m not that surprised.” A minority condoned the ad: “If he has the money to burn, by all means.. Or they anticipated that, given the high salary, others would respond to, if not quite condone, it Indeed, a number of the students spoke of living in a culture in which market-home crossovers were unsurprising. As one put it: “My reac­tion is one of ‘sure, this is normal.’ My own reaction surprises me because I know years ago… I would have been shocked and angry. But now I am desensitized, and accept that relationships don’t always happen in the nice, neat boxes I once thought they came in.”

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Only four out of seventy thought the ad was a hoax.4